Chapter 2: Reflection 12 – Love at a Refined Pitch

In 1984, scholar José Ignacio Cabezón published a review article which focused on Father Richard Sherburne’s English translation of Atisa’s A Lamp for the Enlightenment Path. 1 In this piece, Professor Cabezón affirms the “success” and the “immediate popularity” of Atisa’s 11th century text and its ability both to avoid the “extensive dialectics that were all too popular at the time” and to present “in a systematic and concise way the most important and relevant points of Mahayana [Buddhist] doctrine, in a format suitable for practice.” In this way, the Lamp became an inspiration and a root model for generations of Tibetan religious writers and practitioners. 2

Regarding Father Sherburne’s translation itself, Professor Cabezón affirms that it is “certainly a welcome addition to the field of Buddhist studies” and that it is “on the whole quite accurate and readable.” However, the professor identifies “a few points” of concern, one of which involves the Jesuit’s translation of Verse 5 of the Lamp, where Atisa describes the qualities and actions of a “superior” being, a Bodhisattva. 3 Father Sherburne’s translation reads: “One who wholly seeks a complete end / To the suffering of others because / Their suffering belongs to his own (conscious) stream …” 4 Expressing his concern about the priest’s wording, the professor writes:

The last line of the translation can be misleading. It is not that the being of highest scope (being described here) actually takes the suffering of others into his own mind-stream, but that he empathizes with their suffering (and desires its elimination) ‘because of the suffering which he himself experiences,’ which is to say that realizing that all beings suffer as he/she does, the bodhisattva seeks an end to all suffering in a way that disregards the boundary of self and other. 5

Professor Cabezón’s critique of Father Sherburne’s translation appears to focus on the implication that the Bodhisattva “takes the suffering of others into his own mind-stream.” Instead, the professor clarifies, emphasizing the exercise of empathy, that through an encounter with their own affliction, Bodhisattvas realize that all beings must suffer in the same way. In response, a Bodhisattva “seeks an end to all suffering” – and Professor Cabezón intriguingly adds, “in a way that disregards the boundary of self and other.”

In Chapter 2 of her Revelation, Julian expresses her desire for “a bodely sight” of the “bodily paines of oure saviour, and of the compassion of our lady, and of all his true lovers that … saw his paines.” 6 Further, the anchorite expresses her wish to be “one” of those who saw and grieved Christ’s affliction and to “have suffered with them.” This wish foregrounds the role and the practice of “compassio” in medieval Christian devotion and spirituality. 7 It is a practice that touches upon core issues that reveal themselves in both Father Sherburne’s translation of Atisa’s verse and in Professor Cabezón’s response to it. It is here as well that we find one of the most potentially rich – although delicate and evanescent – points of contact between the Tibetan Buddhist and Christian traditions.

The medieval practice of compassion referenced in Julian’s words would continue to manifest and evolve throughout subsequent periods even down to the mid-20th century when both Richard Sherburne and Thomas Merton were being formed for consecrated religious life in their respective orders. 8 Fellow Cistercian, Chrysogonos Waddell, identifies one of the key factors that informed Gethsemani Abbey’s spiritual atmosphere in TM’s early years as “the importance of the reality of vicarious suffering and intercessory prayer in the lives of most of the brethren of those days.” 9 And in his biography of the early Cistercian saint, Lutgarde of Aywieris (1182-1246), TM writes:

The ideal of vicarious suffering, as a most excellent and perfect expression of our love for God, had not been developed in St. Bernard – or indeed in any of the Fathers before him – to the refined pitch which it was to acquire in mystics of more modern times, beginning especially in the age of St. Lutgarde, with her and other Cistercians, with St. Francis of Assisi [1181-1226] and his followers, later with the great Carmelite St. Teresa [1515-1582], but most explicitly with St. Margaret Mary [1647-1690] and, in our own times, in St. Gemma Galgani [1878-1903], St. Theresa of Lisieux [1873-1897] … 10


  1. As indicated above, Richard Sherburne, S.J. (1926-2013) studied with Tibetan Buddhist scholar, Dezhung Rinpoche (1906–1987) while a student at the University of Washington in Seattle: “Dezhung Rinpoche worked with Sherburne over the course of many years on his translation of Atisa’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment … which was the topic of both his master’s thesis (1972) and his Ph.D. dissertation (1976). They also read Tsongkhapa’ s Lesser Stages of the Path … together, meeting at Rinpoche’s home once a week and occasionally twice, if Rinpoche had time.” (David Paul Jackson, A Saint in Seattle: The Life of the Tibetan Mystic Dezhung Rinpoche (1st ed.). Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2003, pages 324 and 728.) When, in 1998, Father Sherburne published his translation of “the complete works of Atisa,” the Jesuit acknowledged another Tibetan lama whose presence continues to grow in these series of meditations: “My thanks are especially due to Geshe Lhundup Sopa, professor emeritus of the University of Wisconsin, who assisted me in difficult points of the translations …”  (Atisa, The Complete Works of Atisa, Sri Dipamkara Jnana, Jo-Bo-Rje. The Lamp for the Path and Commentary, together with the newly translated Twenty-five Key Texts (Tibetan and English Texts). Translated and annotated by Richard Sherburne, S.J. Foreword by His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 2000, page ix.)   
  2. José Ignacio Cabezón, “Review of A Lamp for the Path and Commentary, by Atisa, translated and annotated by Richard Sherburne.” The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Volume 7. Number 2. 1984 page 224. 
  3. José Ignacio Cabezón, “Review of A Lamp for the Path and Commentary, by Atisa, translated and annotated by Richard Sherburne.” The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Volume 7. Number 2. 1984 page 224.
  4. Atisa, A Lamp for the Path and Commentary. Translated and annotated by Richard Sherburne, S. J. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1983, verse 5, page 5. The terms “conscious-stream” or “mind-stream” may be unfamiliar to some readers. Scholar Alexander Berzin provides some context: “What do we mean by the conventional nature of mental activity? We are not talking about mind as some sort of object in our heads or instrument that does mental activity. We are talking about the mental activity itself.” (Alexander Berzin, “Mahamudra: The Nature of Mental Activity.” Transcription of seminar in Seattle, Washington, April 2003. Retrieved from website, Study Buddhism: Mahamudra: The Nature of Mental Activity — Study Buddhism) Dr. Berzin also explains: “Mind in Buddhism refers to experience, namely the mere arising and cognitive engaging with the contents of experience. The continuity of experience is known as the mind-stream, or ‘mental-continuum.’” Quoted in “The Seven Types of Awareness.” Retrieved as PDF resource on website of Venerable Thupten Chodron on 12.14.22: Microsoft Word – The Seven Types of Awareness-SA.docx (
  5. José Ignacio Cabezón, “Review of A Lamp for the Path and Commentary, by Atisa, translated and annotated by Richard Sherburne.” The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Volume 7. Number 2. 1984 page 225. Professor Cabezón’s critique of Father Sherburne’s translation would seem to be substantiated by another English translation of Atisa’s Lamp. See Table One below in which Father Sherburne’s translation of Verse 5 of Atisa’s Lamp is placed next to a translation of scholar Ruth Sonam, whose translation can be found in Atisha’s Lamp for the Path of Enlightenment: An Oral Teaching by Geshe Sonam Rinchen. Translated and edited by Ruth Sonam. Boston: Snow Lion, 1997, page 152. In his commentary on Atisa’s text, His Holiness the Dalai Lama also adds his support to Professor Cabezón’s position. His Holiness begins his teaching on Verse 5 with the words: “This verse refers to those practitioners who generate compassion and loving kindness toward others on the basis of a deep understanding of the nature of their own suffering.” (Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, Illuminating the Path to Enlightenment: A Commentary on Atisha Dipamkara Shrijnana’s “A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment” and Lama Je Tsong Khapa’s “Lines of Experience.” Translated by Thupten Jinpa. Edited by Rebecca McClen Novick, Thupten Jinpa and Nicholas Ribush. Boston: Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, 2002, page 103.)
  6. Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, Chapter 2, lines 10-12, pages 127. Fuller quotation: “And therefore I desired a bodely sight, wherein I might have more knowinge of the bodily paines of our saviour, and of the compassion of our lady, and of all his true lovers that were living that time and saw his paines.” (Ibid.)  
  7. In her book, The Permeable Self, medievalist Barbara Newman very helpfully provides a window into the Western medieval understanding of “self” and “personhood.” Referencing the work of philosopher, Charles Taylor, she explains “that the premodern self was more ‘porous’ than the bounded or ‘buffeted’ self that has replaced it.” (2). In laying out the project of her study, she states that it “approaches the meaning of personhood historically by way of some fascinating liminal phenomena in medieval poetry, hagiography, and other discourses. These phenomena concern not individuals in their solitude but interpersonal relations at a certain pitch of intensity, where the boundaries between persons seem to blur.” (1) And in a section of her book in which she explores emotions within the context of relationships and reciprocity, Professor Newman writes: “The prized feeling of compassio is the clearest case of a shared emotion, which devotees were directed to cultivate as a way of participating vicariously in Christ’s Passion.” (266) See Barbara Newman, The Permeable Self: Five Medieval Relationships. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2021. Numbers in parentheses directly above reference Professor Newman’s text. And the emphasis in the second quotation is mine.
  8. TM entered Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky on December 10, 1941, and Richard Sherburne entered the Jesuits on August 8, 1943. “Jesuits: 2013 Jubilarians of the Chicago-Detroit and Wisconsin Provinces,” page 19. Retrieved on 12.14.22: As indicated in an earlier reflection, The Spiritual Exercises, composed by the founder of the Society of Jesus (The Jesuits), Ignatius of Loyola [1491-1556], is part of a lineage that can be traced back to earlier medieval texts of guided meditation such as “A Rule of Life for a Recluse,” written by Cistercian Aelred of Rievaulx.
  9. Chrysogonus Waddell, “Merton and the Tiger Lily.” The Merton Annual 2. (1989), page 72. In this article, Father Chrysogonos, a noted medievalist himself, writes a lovely and poignant reflection on an aspect of TM’s spiritual writing. In the early years of his monastic life, TM was asked by the then Abbot Dom M. Frederic Dunne to research and write on the lives of early Cistercians. One of the primary pieces to emerge from these labors was the 1948 book, What Are These Wounds: The Life of a Cistercian Mystic, Saint Lutgarde of Aywieres. Other briefer biographies that TM wrote were gathered and printed in 2013 under the title, In the Valley of Wormwood: Cistercian Blessed and Saints in the Golden Age. Compassionate and vicarious suffering is present as a theme and practice in some these lives. Vicarious suffering is a complex phenomenon that will be revisited in later reflections. However, for the time being, it might be described as a voluntary embrace of and/or taking on of suffering in order to deepen one’s relationship with God and/or Mary, the Mother of God, or for the benefit of other human beings, both the living and those who have died. The practice has been connected with the teaching of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, with devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and with a verse from the Letter to the Colossians (1.24): “[ego Paulus] qui nunc gaudeo in passionibus pro vobis et adimpleo ea quae desunt passionum Christi in carne mea pro corpore eius quod est ecclesia; “[I, Paul] Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church …” The practice and spirituality of vicarious suffering had a significant presence in religious communities of nuns, brothers, and priests in the 20th century, primarily prior to the Second Vatican Council. For more information, see Paula M. Kane, “’She offered herself up’: The Victim Soul and Victim Spirituality in Catholicism.” Church History. 71.1 (March 2002): 80-119. See also “Vicarious Suffering in Catholic Belief and Practice,” a section in the dissertation of Samuel Paul Randall: Stellvertretung as Vicarious Suffering in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A dissertation submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, St. Edmund’s College, December 2018, pages 54ff: Stellvertretung as Vicarious Suffering in Dietrich Bonhoeffer.pdf
  10. Thomas Merton, What Are These Wounds: The Life of a Cistercian Mystic, Saint Lutgarde of Aywieres. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 1948/2014, page 32.
Table One

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